Saturday, November 22, 2014

My 5-Year Reading Plan: The Essentials List

This is the one where I expose myself as a two-faced liar.

For far too long, I've stood at the fringes of conversation at parties, nodding along as if I've actually read Ulysses (or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or The Phantom Tollbooth, or whatever).  I've gone to book festivals and looked fellow authors in the eye--without blinking--and wordlessly pretended I've read their books.  I have prevaricated, fumbled, mumbled and bumbled my way through this reading life, chanting a mantra to myself and others, "No, I haven't read that--yet."  Or, "Someday soon, I intend to pull it off the shelf."  Or that stalwart stand-by: "It's in my TBR pile."

The time has come, my friends, to topple that To-Be-Read stack and stop fooling myself that I'll eventually get around to tackling my literary bucket list.  "Someday" is today.  Or, more accurately, January 1.

Starting in 2015, I, David Abrams, being of sound mind and semi-healthy body, hereby resolve to begin a five-year reading plan in which I finish as many books on my "someday I'll get around to it" list.  I've spent the better part of this week going through my bookshelves, my e-books, and my To-Be-Read stack (mine is so long, I keep it stored in a Word document on my computer.  Nineteen single-spaced pages).  I've picked, I've culled, I've winnowed.  The list is now down to a barely-manageable 200 books.  It's an eclectic list, with representatives from not only the standard canon, but more-recent books which I've added to the TBR roster in the past few months.  So, you'll find Balzac rubbing elbows with Sean Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho (this year's winner of the PEN/Robert W. Birmingham Prize) and Tao Lin neighboring Sinclair Lewis.

Will I finish them all in five years?  Probably not.  Will I eventually abandon this scheme (like I did The Biography Project) and continue my regular habit of reading the next Bright, Shiny New Thing which comes my way?  Perhaps (but I hope not).

I'll admit I'm driven partly by a deadline of mortality.  I'm on the downhill side of 50 and the clock is ticking.  I mean, do I really want to die without having read Everything Is Illuminated?  Do I want the coffin to close, wishing I'd had a taste of Trollope?  Bottom line: I want to finish the bucket list before I kick the bucket.

But I'm also motivated by a sense of excitement--like an explorer who's heard about the jungle all his life and is now about to step behind the curtain of leaves.  After assembling the 200-volume list, my anticipation has grown even further.  The cream of literature's crop awaits me!

I still haven't decided how I'll approach the list: will I do it alphabetically or will I cherry pick at random?  Or will it be a combination of the two?  I'm leaning toward the latter.  In addition, I'm not going to completely set aside the "regular" To-Be-Read roll call.  There are just too many intriguing titles on that 19-page list (and more new books arriving every week) for me to kid myself that I won't be tempted to read the new Stephen King or crack open that debut novel by the next promising young writer.  So, the plan is to dip back into the long-standing TBR pool every third book or so.  That way, I can read both Portnoy's Complaint and the Most-Buzzed-About Book of 2017.

At the risk of embarrassing myself ("What?!  You've never read A Separate Peace?!"), I'm going to post The List here, baring my breast for the slings and arrows of your mockery and tsk-tsks.  But I also hope it will spur you to take a look at your own Someday-I'll-Read-That roster and that you, too, will organize your own reading plan.

To all the still-living authors on here (many of whom are my friends, Facebook and otherwise), I'm coming clean: No, I haven't read your book....but I've always wanted to.  If I've ever lied to you--either directly or by inference--I apologize.  (And if you don't see your name on here, it probably just means it's on the other TBR list.)  Bear in mind that I only got around to reading Anthony Doerr, Lolita, and Donna Tartt this year after they'd been decade-long residents of the neglected and undusted Someday Shelf.

To my fellow readers out there: I'm open to suggestions for alternate books by these authors.  I'm pretty solid on most of my choices (Bird by Bird, for instance), but if you think there's a better book than the one I have listed, please feel free to let me know.

One other thing to note: There are a few authors on here whose books I have read (hello, James Joyce) but want to read another more seminal work in their oeuvre (I'm lookin' at you, Ulysses).  I've marked those authors with an asterisk.

The Essentials List
Abbott, Megan: The Fever
Atwood, Margaret: Alias Grace
Atkinson, Kate: Life After Life
Babel, Isaac: The Complete Works
Baldwin, James: Go Tell It On the Mountain
Balzac, Honore de: Pere Goriot
Barrie, J. M.: Peter Pan
*Beattie, Ann: Chilly Scenes of Winter
Bell, Matt: In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
Bergman, Megan Mayhew: Birds of a Lesser Paradise
Bohjalian, Chris: The Night Strangers
Boyle, T. C.: The Road to Wellville
Bradbury, Ray: Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales
Bronte, Charlotte: Jane Eyre
Bryson, Bill: One Summer
Burke, James Lee: Bitterroot
Butler, Robert Olen: A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain
Byatt, A. S.: Possession
Canty, Kevin: A Stranger in This World
Carroll, Lewis: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
*Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chandler, Raymond: Double Indemnity
Chaon, Dan: Among the Missing
Chesterton, G. K.: The Complete Father Brown Stories
Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in White
Colwin, Laurie: Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object
Crane, Stephen: The Red Badge of Courage
Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
Danielewski, Mark Z.: House of Leaves
Davis, Lydia: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
DeWitt, Patrick: The Sisters Brothers
*Dillard, Annie: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Donoghue, Emma: Room
Dreiser, Theodore: An American Tragedy
Dufresne, John: Louisiana Power and Light
Egan, Jennifer: A Visit From the Goon Squad
Eggers, Dave: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Ellis, Bret Easton: Less Than Zero
Ellroy, James: The Black Dahlia
Emerson, Ralph Waldo: Nature and Selected Essays
Englander, Nathan: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Eugenides, Jeffrey: The Virgin Suicides
Falco, Edward: Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha
Ferber, Edna: Come and Get It
Ferrante, Elena: My Brilliant Friend
Fielding, Henry: Tom Jones
Finkel, David: Thank You For Your Service
Foer, Jonathan Safran: Everything is Illuminated
Follett, Ken: The Pillars of the Earth
Forester, C. S.: Beat to Quarters
Forster, E. M.: Howards End
Fowles, John: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Frangello, Gina: A Life in Men
Frank, Anne: The Diary of Anne Frank
*Fromm, Pete: Indian Creek Chronicles
Gaddis, William: J R
Gaitskill, Mary: Bad Behavior
Galvin, James: The Meadow
Gay, William: The Long Home
Gilbert, Elizabeth: Eat, Pray, Love
Gold, Glen David: Sunnyside
Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
Gloss, Molly: Wild Life
Gogol, Nikolai: Dead Souls
Goolrick, Robert: Heading Out to Wonderful
Gordon, Jaimy: Lord of Misrule
Graham, Kenneth: The Wind in the Willows
Greene, Graham: The Power and the Glory
Grey, Zane: Riders of the Purple Sage
The Annotated Brothers Grimm
Grodstein, Lauren: A Friend of the Family
Groff, Lauren: The Monsters of Templeton
Gurganus, Allan: Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
Guthrie, A. B.: The Big Sky
Gwyn, Aaron: Wynne’s War
Haddon, Mark: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Hall, Brian: I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company
Hamid, Mohsin: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Hammett, Dashiell: Red Harvest
Hannah, Barry: Long, Last, Happy
Harding, Paul: Tinkers
Hardy, Thomas: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Harrison, Kathryn: Poison
Haruf, Kent: Plainsong
Hasek, Jaroslav: The Good Soldier Svejk
*Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Blithedale Romance
Helprin, Mark: A Soldier of the Great War
Hemon, Aleksandar: Nowhere Man
Hempel, Amy: The Collected Stories
Henley, Patricia: Friday Night at the Silver Star
Herr, Michael: Dispatches
Hiaasen, Carl: Double Whammy
Hillenbrand, Laura: Unbroken
Hilton, James: Good-Bye, Mr. Chips
Hornby, Nick: About a Boy
Houston, Pam: Cowboys Are My Weakness
Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World
Ishiguro, Kazuo: Never Let Me Go
Jin, Ha: Waiting
*Johnson, Denis: Jesus’ Son
Jones, Edward: The Known World
Jones, James: From Here to Eternity
Joyce, Graham: The Silent Land
*Joyce, James: Ulysses
Julavits, Heidi: The Mineral Palace
July, Miranda: No one belongs here more than you.
Kane, Jessica Francis: This Close
Karr, Mary: The Liar’s Club
Kesey, Ken: Sometimes a Great Notion
King, Owen: Double Feature
Kipling, Rudyard: Kim
Knausgaard, Karl Ove: My Struggle, Book 1
Knowles, John: A Separate Peace
Koryta, Michael: Those Who Wish Me Dead
Lamb, Wally: She’s Come Undone
Lamott, Anne: Bird by Bird
Larson, Erik: The Devil in the White City
LaValle, Victor: The Devil in Silver
Le Carre, John: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Lethem, Jonathan: The Fortress of Solitude
Lewis, Sinclair: Main Street
Lin, Tao: Tai Pei
Lipsyte, Sam: The Ask
Maguire, Gregory: Wicked
Mandel, Emily St. John: Station Eleven
Mann, Thomas: Death in Venice
Mantel, Hilary: Wolf Hall
Martel, Yann: Life of Pi
Maugham, W. Somerset: Of Human Bondage
Maxwell, William: So Long, See You Tomorrow
McCann, Colum: Let the Great World Spin
McCorkle, Jill: The Cheer Leader
McCullers, Carson: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
McInerney, Jay: Bright Lights, Big City
*McMurtry, Larry: Lonesome Dove
McNamer, Deirdre: Red Rover
Meloy, Maile: Half in Love
Minor, Kyle: Praying Drunk
Montgomery, L. M.: Anne of Green Gables
Moody, Rick: The Ice Storm
Moore, Christopher: Fluke
Nesbo, Jo: The Bat
O’Brian, Patrick: Master and Commander
Offutt, Chris: Out of the Woods
O’Hara, John: Appointment in Samarra
Orlean, Susan: Rin Tin Tin
Orwell, George: 1984
Palahniuk, Chuck: Fight Club
Parker, Dorothy: The Portable Dorothy Parker
Patchett, Ann: Bel Canto
Pearlman, Edith: Binocular Vision
Perrotta, Tom: Little Children
Picoult, Jodi: The Tenth Circle
Pollock, Donald Ray: The Devil All the Time
Porter, Katherine Anne: Collected Stories and Other Writings
Portis, Charles: The Dog of the South
Price, Reynolds: Kate Vaiden
Price, Richard: Freedomland
Proust, Marcel: Swann’s Way
Pushkin, Alexander: Eugene Onegin
Pym, Barbara: Excellent Women
Reid, Van: Cordelia Underwood
Robbins, Tom: Another Roadside Attraction
Robinson, Marilynne: Housekeeping
Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
Savage, Thomas: The Power of the Dog
Scott, Sir Walter: Rob Roy
Sedaris, David: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Shepard, Jim: You Think That’s Bad
Shteyngart, Gary: Super Sad True Love Story
Smiley, Jane: A Thousand Acres
Smith, Zadie: White Teeth
St. Aubyn, Edward: Never Mind
Stendhal: Red and Black
Strayed, Cheryl: Wild
*Theroux, Paul: The Mosquito Coast
Thompson, Hunter S.: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Thompson, Jean: The Year We Left Home
Toole, John Kennedy: A Confederacy of Dunces
Trevor, William: The Collected Stories
Trollope, Anthony: The Way We Live Now
Tropper, Jonathan: One Last Thing Before I Go
Turow, Scott: Presumed Innocent
Tyler, Anne: Breathing Lessons
Van den Berg, Laura: What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
Vann, David: Caribou Island
Vestal, Shawn: Godforsaken Idaho
Vidal, Gore: Lincoln
Vollmann, William T.: Europe Central
Waters, Sarah: The Paying Guests
Watkins, Claire Vaye: Battleborn
Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
Welch, James: Winter in the Blood
*Wells, H. G.: The Invisible Man
Whitehead, Colson: Zone One
Williams, John: Stoner
Williams, Joy: The Quick and the Dead
Wodehouse, P. G.: The Old Reliable
Woodrell, Daniel: The Maid’s Version
Yarbrough, Steve: Visible Spirits

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Freebie: Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner

Congratulations to Christine Neuman, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: a signed copy of Robin Black's debut novel, Life Drawing.

This week's book giveaway is Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner.  One lucky reader will win a hardcover edition of this new novel by the author of The Speed of Light, Gravity, and Blue Nude.  (And do you love that cover design as much as I do?)

Here's a little more about the book from the publisher: Upstate New York, at the confluence of the great Hudson River and its mighty tributary the Mohawk —from this stunning landscape came the creation of a new world of science.  In 1887, Thomas Edison moved his Edison Machine Works here and in 1892, it became the headquarters of a major manufacturing company, giving the town its nickname: Electric City.  The peak of Autumn, 1919: The pull of scientific discovery brings Charles Proteus Steimetz, a brilliant mathematician and recent arrival from Ellis Island, to town.  His ability to capture lightning in a bottle earns him the title “Wizard of Electric City.”  Barely four feet tall with a deeply curving spine, Steinmetz’s physical deformity belies his great intellect.  Allied with his Mohawk friend Joseph Longboat and his adopted eleven-year-old granddaughter Midget, the advancements he makes in Electric City will, quite simply, change the world.  The peak of Autumn, 1965: Sophie Levine, the daughter of a company man, one of the many scientists working at The Company, whose electric logo can be seen from everywhere in town.  Her family escaped Europe just before World War II, leaving behind a wake of annihilation and persecution.  Ensconced in Electric City, Sophie is coming of age just as the town is gasping its last breaths.  The town, and America as a whole, is on the cusp of great instability: blackouts, social unrest over Vietnam, and soon the advent of the seventies.  Into her orbit drifts Henry Van Curler, the favored son of one of Electric City’s founding Dutch families, as well as Martin Longboat, grandson of Joseph Longboat.  This new generation of Electric City will face both the history of their town and their own uncertain future, struggling to bridge the gap between the old world and the new.  Electric City is a vital, pulsing, epic novel of America, of its great scientific ingenuity and its emotional ambition; one that frames the birth and evolution of its towns against the struggles of its indigenous tribes, the immigrant experience, a country divided, and the technological advancements that ushered in the modern world.

Here's some nice blurbworthiness from Caroline Leavitt (author of Pictures of You): "A heady mix of world-changing history (Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz) coupled against a bewitching love triangle ignites Rosner's gorgeously written exploration of the way inventions transform cities, hearts, and lives, sometimes with a terrible cost, and the way light nudges inroads in the darkness.  Electrifyingly original."

If you’d like a chance at winning Electric City, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 27, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 28.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Phil Klay wins National Book Award

“I can’t think of a more important conversation to be having....War is too strange to be processed alone.”

~Phil Klay

Congratulations, Phil, on winning the National Book Award for Redeployment, and for continuing the national conversation in such a thoughtful and deeply-moving way.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ed Lahey: Butte's Underground Poet

When I was invited to contribute to a new anthology of essays about Montana poets, I knew exactly who I wanted to write about.  While other contributors to These Living Songs: Reading Montana Poetry wrote about Big Sky poetry legends like Richard Hugo, James Welch, Lowell Jaeger, Melissa Kwasny, Roger Dunsmore and Tami Haaland, I chose a big bear of a man whose hands were once creased with coal dust and whose poems had the lung-rattle of silica dust: Butte native Ed Lahey.

“Ed who?” many of you are asking--even those of you who are well-versed in Montana verse.  Don't worry, I myself hadn't heard of Lahey before I moved to the Mining City in early 2009 (and even then, he was hardly a household name here in Butte).  It was only after his death two years later that I cracked open his collected poem, Birds of a Feather, and realized that if he wasn't well-known, then by God, I'd try to do something about that, in my own small way.

That's why I was thrilled to be asked by editors Lisa Simon and Brady Harrison to come up with something for this new anthology, now out from University of Montana Press.  Here's an excerpt from what I wrote:

I stand at the edge of the Alice Pit, a dry, abandoned hole in the hill above Butte.  Someone with high hopes once dug here, the first open pit mine in Butte.  Someone with mineral lust once scooped away the soil, ears ringing with the bells of a thousand cash registers.  The Alice only lasted five years before shutting down, the failed dreams blowing away in the wind that knifes its way from Walkerville down to Butte.  Now it’s been reclaimed, a bowl of green, terraced like the seats in a football stadium.

I linger at the lip of the hole on a late April day.  The wind at my back wants to push me into the pit, tumble me down the green scar of earth.

I’ve come here as a sort of personal eulogy to Butte’s unofficial poet laureate who, I just learned, has died in an assisted-living home up in Missoula.  Staring at a hole in the ground seems a fitting tribute to Ed Lahey.  His, after all, was the voice of the miner—one in a long tradition of writers in Montana who made mining central to their work.  Men like novelist Myron Brinig who described Butte as “a gaudy scramble of races and creeds” in his autobiographical novel Singermann, published in 1919.  In “The Idealist,” published in The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, Butte poet Berton Braley unapologetically defends his mining town against its detractors:
Ugly and bleak? Well, maybe,
But my eyes have learned to find
The beauty of truth, not substance,
The beauty that lies behind.
Lahey also scratched beneath the copper-rich surface of Butte, but what he found was less beautiful than Braley’s greeting-card vision.

Lahey’s poem “The Beauty and the Beast,” from his 2005 collection, Birds of a Feather, growls in my ear as I stare at the Alice: “empty as a starling’s song . . . / a small acidic lake / above the wounded town.”  Lahey was keenly attuned to the sensitivity of Butte.  Despite their reputation for living in a rough-and-tumble town, residents of the Mining City rarely stop thinking about these lakes of poison, poised to tip and spill across the already-wounded town (fittingly renamed “Poisonville” by Dashiell Hammett in his 1929 private-eye novel Red Harvest).  Those lines from “The Beauty and the Beast” serve as both lament and warning.

Lahey was an artist who found commonplace beauty in the wreckage of a town like Butte.  Read his poems closely and you’ll discover a man torn between celebrating the town’s decadent past and wryly, ruefully mourning what it has become.

Look, for instance, at one of his most celebrated poems, “The Ballad of the Board of Trade Bar.”  The bar is gone now—a parking lot next to the old city hall marks its place like a missing tooth in a mouth that used to smile—but for the space of Lahey’s poem, it comes alive again with the kind of verbal energy typical of his other work.

“The Ballad of the Board of Trade Bar” centers around a prostitute named Coal Oil Belle who “was a red lamp legend / in a brown town.”  Each night as the shift-change whistle echoed around town (aurally illustrated in Lahey’s internal rhyme), Belle could be found “behind a smelter stack,” plying her trade.

Belle is literally a colorful figure in Lahey’s “brown town”; the color red is mentioned twice and then there’s the silver-lined coffin in which she’s buried.  In his poem, Lahey buries her “beneath a smoking torch”—which could refer to the lovelorn torch her customers still carry for her, but more tellingly points to the smoldering smelter stacks of the dozens of mines dotting Butte’s landscape.  “In a town of misery,” Lahey writes, “one needs sentimental history.”

He saves his most bitter sentiment for the final stanza where Belle gets the last laugh.  There she is in her silver coffin, “ten pounds of bone” residing in the mineral-rich earth for which Butte was known.  “[W]hen the whistles blow,” Lahey supposes, “her earless sockets listen” and her hips still move in sexual rhythm “to the pocket sound / of a lover’s jingle.”  It’s a marvelous marriage of earthy sexuality and criticism of the crass materialism (silver coins jingling in a pocket) that was rampant in Butte.

Lahey had an unmistakable love/hate relationship with his hometown.  It is, as he writes in “Deep Bells,” a “city of tired miners.”  It is also a city of “mystic mountains, blue sky, that / furls around the town, still as hesitant air.”  Butte is ugly, Butte is beautiful, and it works its way into your soul like coal dust into the seams of your palms.  It is a stoic place, “a place of private / struggle.”

Ed Lahey had a voice deep as dynamite.  At his readings, he hardly needed a microphone, his words rumbling out of his 6’5” frame—grizzly bear dimensions—and setting the chairs to buzzing.  He filled a room with his voice, his demeanor, his words.

I once heard someone say, “When I listened to him read, it was like hearing the resonance of the earth.”  And yet, he never rose as large as he should have on Montana’s literary map.

After Lahey died on April 27, 2011—two days before I walked to the edge of the Alice Pit—it took more than a week for his obituary to appear in the local Butte newspaper, and even then his passing didn’t so much as raise a ripple on the toxic waters of the city’s Berkeley Pit (“twenty billion gallons and rising,” he writes in his poem “A Note From the Third World”).  Lahey, the son of a miner and a former worker in Butte’s Swiss-cheese network of mines, struggled for popular recognition during his life and, it seems, even after death.

By contrast, there was a much louder and more public mourning two hours up the interstate in Missoula where some of Lahey’s closest friends— mostly writers and artists—reeled in shock and sadness at news of his death.  He’d been ill for quite some time—a broken man at the end of what even he called a heartbreak life—but still it was hard to believe he was gone.

“He had the most beautiful and large soul and it spilled over into our lives,” said Sheryl Noethe, then Montana’s poet laureate.

Lahey wrote raw-nerve poems of blue-collar life, but his work went largely unchampioned by that very laboring class.  He often stands in the shadow of his contemporary and mentor, Richard Hugo, but the two poets share similar themes in the concentration of their work: the dim drink-stained bar, the bruised knuckles from a fistfight, the comfort of a prostitute’s bed.

Lahey’s poem “In My Three Act Dream” describes how comfort is sought in drink (“good corn bourbon / smoking my liver”) and women (“my green-eyed girl with the apple breasts”).  In Lahey’s Butte, prostitutes like Coal Oil Belle earn their wages behind smelter stacks, offering themselves under the neon blaze of Butte’s uptown district, debasing themselves for underground men, but when the end comes they’re buried in $2,000 engraved coffins lined with silver.

In its glory days, above-ground Butte was a bustling hive of commerce and culture with a peak population of 100,000 in the early 1900s, making it the largest city between Minneapolis and Seattle.  Bars and brothels thrived, restaurants never closed, and Charlie Chaplin and Sarah Bernhardt lit up the theater stages.  But below the surface, it was a dark dank world where timbers groaned, the ground shuddered, compressors moaned, drills chattered, and a miner’s cough was full of “silicotic glitter” (“A Letter to the Editor”).  The bipolar city was rough and the poet tumbled with the best of them.

“The town has grown into my nervous system,” Lahey told a reporter in 2005.  “Sometimes I feel like a hostage in a war, but I am glad, too.”  The wind at the Alice Pit stabs me in the back and I head down off the hill to my house on the Flats where I open the paper (the Missoula paper) and read Lahey’s obituary in that day’s edition.
MISSOULA – Edward Thomas Lahey was born in Butte on July 8, 1936, to Edward and Frances Lahey, and grew up in a successful and colorful mining family, the youngest of two. He died on Wednesday, April 27, 2011, in Missoula....After achieving a Master of Arts in English from the University of Montana, Ed went on to teach American literature (and was a member of Richard Hugo’s poetry workshop). He left teaching in the late 1960s, and devoted the remainder of his life to his work. His first book of poetry, The Blind Horses, won the first Montana Arts Council First Book Award in 1979. Clark City Press published a complete collection of Ed’s poetry, Birds of a Feather in 2005. In 2008, he received the Montana Arts Council Governor’s Arts award for his lifetime work. Later in 2008, his semi-fictional memoir, The Thin Air Gang was published. 
I read how he grew up in a house on Aluminum Street, not far from the Travona Mine; how he went to work as a teenager and got paid $10 a day to crawl into manganese gondola cars with a five-pound sledge and clear out the dusty residue; how he would later sit in the Silver Dollar Saloon and read his poems to the half-stoned (and, no doubt, sometimes all-stoned) patrons—poems which sang like theme songs from a jukebox, songs about labor and corporate greed and the cynicism of easy, early death.

Mines are merciless and so were the mining companies who poisoned the Richest Hill on Earth while also lining their corporate pockets with copper.  Lahey burned with anger at the way Butte workers were treated and that boiled over into his stanzas.  In one of my favorite poems, “A Different Price,” he writes:
a bull gear caught Haggerty’s hand,
slick iron on a wet day.
I heard him speak to it.
“Whoa,” he said.
It cut his hand off anyway.
The mine doesn’t care.  It has callous disregard for its workers.  They are meat in its machine.  Lahey knew this, he lived it, and he wrote sympathetically of those who were caught in the cogs—both literal and metaphoric.  As his poem “In My Three Act Dream” tells us, “payday’s just a shack / at the edge of the great pit’s lip.”

Postscript:  Lahey's good friend, fellow poet Mark Gibbons, writes movingly of a visit he paid to E. L. in his last days in a nursing home.  Take a look at “The King of Poetry” on Gibbons' website--then be sure to check out his other books of poetry, including Forgotten Dreams and Shadowboxing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

      I've only met Joseph Kanon once--at a book festival in Palm Springs, California (which is either a city with a golf course problem or a golf course with a city problem)--but we instantly bonded and became good friends.  Or maybe that's just me; if you stopped him on the street today and showed him my picture, he probably wouldn't have the faintest idea who I was.  But for one evening in Palm Springs, it felt like we were BFFs.  Mr. Kanon (“Oh, please!  Call me Joe!”) is such a genial, loquacious personality that I was immediately drawn in and put at ease by his sincerity and warmth.  Mr. Kan--Joe and I shared tiny plates of food during an evening party at the Sunnylands estate after a book reading which was part of the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival.  Owned by Walter Annenberg, a philanthropist, ambassador and publisher (he founded both TV Guide and Seventeen), the palatial Sunnylands is informally known as the Presidential Retreat.  Most of the Republican presidents since Nixon have slept there.  The Annenbergs died years ago, so it was okay for President Obama to sleep overnight there a few months before Joe and I attended the dinner party.  There’s a mid-size room just off the master bedroom where the flat surface of every piece of furniture is crowded with framed photos of the Annenbergs shaking hands with Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II.  Another whole wall is devoted solely to Christmas cards from Queen Elizabeth (there must have been at least 40 of them).  When I wandered out to the terrace, lit by gas-fed tiki torches, I found tables mounded with food: five kinds of cheese, artisanal ham, lamb chops, berries, arugula salad.  Serving staff circulated with trays of canapés and hors d’ouevres: “Would you like an herb shrimp crostini with mango salsa, sir?”  I stood at one of the small, chest-high tables, forking down salad, gulping white wine and starting to hyperventilate like a fish out of water.  I've never been good at social settings; cocktail parties give me the prickly hives.  But then my nervous solitude was interrupted by a “May we join you?”  I glanced up from my lollipop-sized lamb chop to see a tall, distinguished-looking gentlemen and his wife holding drinks and plates of food in their hands.  “Certainly!” I said.  He set down his plate, extended his hand, and said, “I'm Joe and this is Robin.”  Of course, I recognized him as the Edgar Award winner of novels like Los Alamos, The Good German and Istanbul Passage.  And of course I was intimidated by my impression of this guy who'd hopped around the globe on jets and lunched with glitterati like George Clooney.  The best-selling author immediately put me at ease by drawing me into conversation: “Isn't this food exquisite?  And what did you think of the artwork inside the house?  Is this your first time in Palm Springs?  Are you having a good time?”  And we were off, dashing through a maze of chatter and gossip which lasted nearly half an hour and ranged across so many topics I can't remember them all now.  What I do know is that Joe Kanon struck me as someone with an encyclopedic knowledge who would give any Jeopardy! champion a run for his money.
      Which brings me to the book trailer at hand....
      In the video for Leaving Berlin (coming to bookstores next March), Kanon plays tour guide as we walk through the German city.  Contemporary street scenes smoothly melt into historic photos of the ruined and bomb-scarred landscape of Berlin in the late 1940s, the setting for the new novel, Leaving Berlin.  As anyone who's read Kanon's previous novels knows, there is bound to be intrigue and spycraft in the pages of this book.  Take a look at the publisher's synopsis and you'll see it has a great set-up for a Cold War thriller:
Alex Meier, a young Jewish writer, fled the Nazis for America before the war. But the politics of his youth have now put him in the crosshairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of his family, he makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin. But almost from the start things go fatally wrong. A kidnapping misfires, an East German agent is killed, and Alex finds himself a wanted man. Worse, he discovers his real assignment—to spy on the woman he left behind, the only woman he has ever loved. Changing sides in Berlin is as easy as crossing a sector border. But where do we draw the lines of our moral boundaries?
As Kanon notes in the trailer, “Occupied Berlin was a city made for spies,” and complicated, haunted cities like this were made for kind, smart, engaging raconteurs like Kanon.  I'm putting Leaving Berlin near the top of my 2015 reading list.  I think I'll pair it with a glass of Riesling and a shrimp crostini with mango salsa in honor of our brief encounter in Palm Springs.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My First Time: Lee Upton

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Lee Upton, author of The Tao of Humiliation: Stories (BOA Editions, 2014), and a forthcoming book of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles, this year’s recipient of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Book Prize.  Her work has appeared in The Atlantic MonthlyNew Republic, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and DoubleTake.  She is a professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.

My Many First Times

The first time I published anything outside of school publications:
      I had gone to a poetry festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  A famous poet at the festival offered to look at poems by those in attendance.  My bus was leaving soon, and so I fought down my shyness and hurried over to him.  After reading my poems he said, without hesitation, “These could be so much worse.”
      That was all the encouragement I needed.  I rode the bus home, writing madly, in love with possibility.  And the poem I wrote on that bus became my first published poem.  It wasn’t a good poem, but that doesn’t matter now.

The first time people laughed when I read aloud something I wrote:
      The poem was called “Jesus on a Tortilla.”  This was before there were so many sightings of that sort.  I thought of the poem as a simple sequence of observations.  But the first time I read it—in a cafeteria somewhere—people laughed and kept laughing.  The poem probably isn’t funny anymore, but the laughter I heard was so unexpected that I was startled.  To be funny felt useful.  It lifted people—and lifted something from them.  Funny was helpful.

The first time I learned a book of mine would be published:
      The phone call came from a stranger.  My book was going to be published by the University of Alabama Press.  Thomas Rabbitt spoke to me for a while, explaining what the process of publication involved.  I thanked him and hung up.
      Within an hour I called him back.  It wasn’t one of those cases where I thought that maybe I had received a crank call.  I called him back because I thought I might have hallucinated his call.  When I asked him if he had actually called me, he told me not to worry about thinking I’d hallucinated the call.  He said my reaction was normal, even though it wasn’t.  I’ve always been grateful for his kindness.
      Next I called my mother.  At first I was so excited I could hardly speak.  Then I spoke.  Here’s a basic reprise of the conversation:
      Me: “Mom!  Mom!  I can’t believe it!  My book is going to be published!”
      My mother: “Good for you.  There’s a dog here and she’s in heat.  This dog is in heat.  I’m taking care of Evelyn’s dog and she’s in the garage and tearing down the garage door.  This dog is in heat.”
      And so on.  The entirety of the conversation was about that dog.  That dog in heat.

The first time I held a book I’d written:
      A box of books arrived from the publisher.  I opened the box, pulled out a freshly minted copy of my own book, and sat down on the floor, bewildered.  I knew what books were like, obviously, but somehow it seemed as if my writing—all that yearning—shouldn’t actually fit inside two covers.  I knew I was being idiotic.  Especially because it was a slim little book.  But I sat there on the floor, staring at the book, as if waiting for it to do something.  I’ve never had a similar reaction again, and while I was thankful beyond words to have a book, I was also weirdly baffled beyond words.  Could this be my book—something I could hold in my hands?  Shouldn’t the book inflate and fill the entire room?

The first time I managed to kill off a character:
      I don’t remember the first time.  For the longest time I didn’t think I could allow any character to die.  Then I looked at some of my fiction, saw I’d already done it, and realized: Oh no!  I could call this book Everybody Dies.

The first time I raised a character from the dead:
      In a long-standing version of one of my stories the main character dies.  She kept dying through many revisions—over years.  She stayed dead in a published version of the story.  But when I revised the story for inclusion in The Tao of Humiliation, I couldn’t let her die again and she doesn’t.  I think now that she never should have died and that I just had to work for a very long time to discover how to resurrect her.  That’s one of the wonderful ways in which fiction is not like life.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Sentence: The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac by Sharma Shields

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

It was a dreary Wednesday in early October when Eli informed Gladys that he planned to give up his flourishing podiatry practice and pursue, full-time, the region's elusive Sasquatch.

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac* by Sharma Shields

*Sharma Shields' debut novel will be published in early 2015.  But you should pre-order this weird, funny, totally-awesome book NOW.  That's a demand, not a request....Come on, don't make me send Bigfoot to your house to break all your fingers and eat all the food in your refrigerator....Because I will, you know....I will!  I have him on speed-dial, and he owes me a favor.  Just pre-order the book and everything will be cool.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Soup and Salad: The Reading Habits of Authors, Finish That Book!, Joseph Heller's Long-Forgotten Musical Comedy, Is the Party Over for Amazon?, The Bad Idea Company, O-Dark-Thirty Sheds Light on Veterans, Bill Wolfe Reads Her Like an Open Book

On today's menu:

1.  Tim Horvath does it in the bathtub, Anthony Wallace did it at the beach, Judy Chicurel likes to do it on the couch at sunset, and Jon Clinch does it wherever he can.  And me?  Well....
The spot where I most frequently find myself with a book is a small, solitary spot tucked away from the bustle of human distraction. It’s a quiet Nirvana with only the occasional sound of rushing water to break the stillness. Yes, the bathroom—or water-closet, if you prefer the more refined approach—is where I get about 63 percent of my reading done. Apparently, judging by the reactions when I posted this on Facebook (“Eww!”, “I didn’t need to know this”), some people have a problem with my personal paradise. Maybe they don’t like the image of me perched on the porcelain throne, pants around my ankles, taking care of business. But I don’t want to dwell on the evacuation properties of this scenario (“waste out, words in”); I prefer to focus on why it makes the ideal reading spot.
Overshare much, Abrams?  Maybe, but you should check out the "Here I Read, There I Read" feature at Bloom anyway.

2.  I'm going to make a statement which may incense and inflame: If you don't finish reading a book, if you grow bored and abandon it midway through, if you treat books like chocolates nestled in a box and sample them with one bite before putting them back in the little brown paper cup, THEN YOU'RE WRONG.  That's the stance of Juliet Lapidos in The Atlantic, anyway:
To drop a novel after a few chapters is, then, to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer. Today, books and authors need all the help they can get; if you care about literature as an artistic endeavor and the people who create it, then you should do so fully. If you consider yourself a literary person, you shouldn't just embrace the intellectual cachet that starting books gives you. Starting, but not finishing, books is one step above saying, "Oh yeah, I've heard of that author."
I happen to agree with Ms. Lapidos--at least to a certain extent (I don't buy the whole "finish it for the endurance" strength training argument).  Like her, I'm a completist.  I can count on one hand the number of books I've started reading as an adult and stopped before I reached the last page (one of them, Jubilee Hitchhiker, William Hjortsberg's terrific biography of Richard Brautigan, was simply put on "pause" because it's such a massive book that I want to give it my full attention when the time is right).  Like the Atlantic article mentions, I'm probably in the minority, but so far that hasn't stopped me from not-stopping.

3.  I consider myself pretty familiar with the life of Joseph Heller, but when I stumbled across this article in Hazlitt, Penguin Random House of Canada's online magazine, I was brought up short:
In July 1962, Joseph Heller was open to any offers that came his way. Catch-22 was showing few signs of success: published nine months earlier, it was selling slowly. Heller and his family had left Manhattan behind to spend the summer on Fire Island. He was restless, worried about money, and eating enough for three. Late at night, he would sit outside on the deck of his house, waiting for something to happen. One day, something did, a thick envelope arrived with a pitch inside: would he be interested in writing the script for a new musical, Howe & Hummel? His collaborator would be a prominent composer, Harold Rome, whose latest show featured Barbra Streisand’s Broadway debut. The subject was two 19th century lawyers, William Howe and Abraham Hummel, and the scams they ran in New York. With his novel seeming more of a misfire than a blockbuster, Heller jumped at the chance.
And here's the postscript:
Howe & Hummel has never been performed. It hasn’t even been published. In the 50 years since Heller completed it, it’s never had so much as a public reading. Only two copies of the typescript survive, while more than 10 million copies of Catch-22 have been sold.
Do I smell an Off-Broadway revival?  (Or maybe just "vival" since the play was never alive in the first place.)

4.  Amazon and Hachette have apparently settled their long, muscle-straining arm-wrestling match over e-book pricing, but this article in Seattle Weekly (which came out prior to the announcement of the settlement) wonders, "Is the party over for Amazon Publishing?"  It's a long article, but well worth the read for anyone interested in the current state of publishing.

5.  If you aren't over-Amazoned after reading that, you might want to take a look at Keith Gessen's piece in Vanity Fair, in which he writes: "all the publishers feel bullied by Amazon, and Amazon, in turn, feels misunderstood."  There's a lot more to it, of course; but that seems to be the crux of the issue in which, like that spot-on illustration shows, two armies have lined up on opposite sides of the book world.  Here's another gem from Keith Gessen's article:
One of the interesting things about Amazon in its early years was the number of bad ideas it had. It was a bad idea to sell heavy home-improvement equipment on the Amazon site and charge a pittance for shipping, and it was a bad idea to consider storing merchandise in the apartments of college students living in Manhattan, so that the students could make deliveries in their neighborhoods. (The company had enough trouble worrying about theft at its warehouses; how was it going to monitor the apartments of kids?) Some people even thought that selling books was a bad idea.
And these un-tame words from literary agent Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie:
      The issues at the heart of the conflict are both margin and price, according to Wylie. Publishers have been slow to recognize the danger of percentage creep, he told me. “There was a European publisher in here recently who proudly sat on that sofa and said, ‘I’ve worked everything out with Amazon. I’ve given them 45 percent.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘But they wanted 50 percent.’ ” The European publisher thought he had won. Wylie stared incredulously at the memory of this encounter. “He’s a moron!”
      Losing the fight over margins would be an immediate blow to the publishers’ profits, but losing control over pricing could be fatal. “If Amazon succeeds,” said Wylie, “they will lower the retail price—$9.99, $6.99, $3.99, $1.99. And instead of making $4 on your hardcover, you’ll be making 10 cents a copy on all editions. And, Keith, you will not be able to afford to write a book.… No one, unless they have inherited $50 million, will be able to afford to write a serious work of history, of poetry, of biography, a novel—anything. The stakes are Western culture.”
      Western culture I could take or leave, but the part about me sent a chill down my spine. This is not what you want to hear from your literary agent. Surely we’ll think of something, I said to Wylie, if Amazon does win?
      “You think?”
      Wylie was not in the mood for a pep talk.
      And yet he believed that the publishers had finally wised up. Not only Hachette but HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster had started negotiations with Amazon, and none of them seemed willing to agree to Amazon’s demands. Perhaps a new era was beginning. Pointing to my Kindle, Wylie asked, “What if all the publishers pulled all their books from that fucking idiot device? Then what would you read on your silly Kindle?”
      But doesn’t Amazon deserve something for building the device, for making it work?
      “If the Kindle didn’t have any books on it, guess how many Kindles would be selling,” Wylie said, putting up his fingers to indicate zero Kindles. “They want the books, and they want the publishers’ profits, too? They should get nothing. Zero.”
Gessen even takes us on a trip to Amazon's Lab126 where Kindles are routinely abused--all in the name of science and commerce:
After meeting the designers and engineers, I went down to the Kindle stress-testing lab, where various machines twisted the Kindle and dropped it and tumbled it around as if in a dryer. There was a machine that specialized in tapping the Kindle, pressing the on-and-off button thousands of times, until the Kindle couldn’t take it anymore. There was a machine that sprayed a salty mist over the Kindle, because the devices are frequently taken to the beach. All of this testing was monitored by quiet, serious people in light-blue lab coats who looked as if they had once worked for Dr. No.

6.  And now we move to a battlefield of a more traditional kind.  The latest issue of O-Dark Thirty is now out--and, not to take anything away from the contents, but that cover art alone is worth the price of admission.  O-Dark-Thirty is a quarterly literary journal by and about veterans, service members and military family members.  I haven't yet had a chance to read this latest issue, but a quick skim yields some treasures:

      I wake to the nudge of a boot in my side. It’s my turn in the gun.
~"Shadows in the Night" by Christopher Baumer

      He spoke in a monotone, as though reciting a prayer learned in childhood, and he never looked me in the eye.
      “We were in a little village outside of Al-Karmah,” he began, “about sixteen clicks northeast of Fallujah. Karmah, ha! What a dumb name. It was the most violent city in Iraq.”
~"Imagining Iraq" by Bárbara Mujica

if they wanted me
to collect a check
buy expensive
shoes wear a tie
pay taxes sleep
at night raise
a son teach
him how to be
a man if they
wanted me
to live
why did
they give me
this gun
      ~"20 to Life" by David Bublitz
Full Disclosure: O-Dark-Thirty was kind enough to publish an interview with yours truly in this issue.  If you'd like to read about my Writing Habits, you can scroll down to page 103.  But I'd highly advise making pit stops at some of the other stories, essays and poems along the way.

7.  If you haven't yet discovered Bill Wolfe's blog, Read Her Like an Open Book, you're missing some insightful and lively writing about the joys of reading.... women.  Bill is a deeper-voiced champion of literature by females and God bless him for doing that.  VIDA counts aside, I know I need to do a better job of balancing the sexes on my reading list.  Of the 83 books I've read so far in 2014, only 32 were written by women.  I generally resist "quota reading" and go where my interests take me, but after reading Bill's blog, I certainly won't lack for recommendations.  I'd suggest starting with the recent "My Favorite Books of 2014" post which includes links to reviews of books like Katey Schultz' Flashes of War:
Schultz has performed an impressive feat of imagination with Flashes of War, putting us in the shoes — and heads — of all of her characters, providing a chorus of voices telling us the various truths about the last 12 years of war. When you are finished reading these compelling and flawlessly written stories, you too will be changed.
I second that emotion, Bill!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Freebie: Win a signed copy of Life Drawing by Robin Black

Congratulations to Tim Horvath, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, The Forgers by Bradford Morrow.

This week, one lucky reader will win a signed copy of Life Drawing, the debut novel from Robin Black, author of the short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.  Some of you have probably had Robin's novel on your wish list for a long time; now is the chance to try a win a copy (and if you're name isn't drawn, I highly recommend you pony up a couple of Alexander Hamiltons to add it to your home library).  For those of you who have read it and are fiercely clinging white-knuckled to your copy, here's your chance to win a signed hardback to give away as a holiday gift.  And for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, read on for more reasons why Life Drawing should be near the top of your To-Be-Read pile...

In Life Drawing, her gorgeously written first novel, Robin Black unfolds a fierce, honest, and moving portrait of a woman, and of a couple’s life—the betrayals and intimacies, the needs and regrets, the secrets that sustain love and the ones that threaten to destroy it.  Augusta and Owen have moved to the country, and live a quiet, and rather solitary life, Gus as a painter, Owen as a writer.  They have left behind the city, and its associations to a troubled past, devoting their days to each other and their art.  But beneath the surface of this tranquil existence lies the heavy truth of Gus’s past betrayal, an affair that ended, but that quietly haunts Owen, Gus and their marriage.  When Alison Hemmings, a beautiful British divorcée, moves in next door, Gus, feeling lonely and isolated, finds herself drawn to Alison, and as their relationship deepens, the lives of the three neighbors become more and more tightly intertwined.  With the arrival of Alison’s daughter Nora, the emotions among them grow so intense that even the slightest misstep has the potential to do irrevocable harm to them all.  With lyrical precision and taut, suspenseful storytelling, Black steadily draws us deeper into a world filled with joys and darkness, love and sorrows, a world that becomes as real as our own.  Life Drawing is a novel as beautiful and unsparing as the human heart.

And here's some nice Blurbworthiness to topple you fence-sitters:

“In her debut novel, Black skillfully conveys the way a long-term relationship can so easily shift between love and affection and a petty tallying of old hurts and disappointments.  In addition, she delivers a hair-raising portrait of a poisonous female friendship.  Full of emotional turmoil yet subtle in its effect, this elegant novel is sure to draw in both women’s-fiction and literary-fiction fans.”

“The simple facts—Gus’s relationship with Owen, her love affair with Bill—are, of course, not simple.  [Robin] Black is a writer of great wisdom, and illuminates, without undue emphasis, the flickering complexity of individual histories. . . . The atmosphere of their love, of this house, is one of the most powerful aspects of Black’s unsettling and compelling novel. . . . [Her] taut, elegant prose is both effective and affecting. . . . Life Drawing is at once quiet and memorable.  This makes it far from fashionable, and all the more to be applauded.  Its author pursues real and vital questions.  Astringent and wise, Black is not afraid to discomfit her readers.  This novel, like life, is uneasy: what a relief.”
—Claire Messud, The Guardian (UK)

BONUS: If you haven't already read it, you should check out Robin's contribution to the "My First Time" series here at the blog.

If you’d like a chance at winning Life Drawing, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 20, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 21.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Great War by Joe Sacco

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

"My name is Joe Sacco and I'm a cartoonist."  That's a strong candidate for Understatement of the Year because Sacco is much more than a "cartoonist."  As anyone who's read his masterpiece of wordless narrative The Great War knows, Sacco is a storyteller, a moralist, a historian, an artist of the highest order who has done much more than give us a 24-foot "cartoon" of combat.  The Great War is an unforgettable visual experience which will churn up a roil of emotions as you slowly move your eyes from left to right across its great length, unfolding the panels which reveal the horror and humanity of World War One's trench warfare.  In one continuous scroll of action, Sacco takes the reader through the events of a single day: July 1, 1916--the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  It was a day which "overall, turned out to be a disaster for the British," Sacco says in the book's trailer.  Ten thousand British soldiers were killed in the first hour alone.  Go back and read that sentence again: the first hour.  It didn't get much better after that, as Sacco so poignantly tells us without uttering a single word.  The Great War is printed on heavyweight accordion-fold paper and demands that you read it slowly, trying to absorb all the little details Sacco includes.  He says he wants readers to view it "as if you're looking at the world from above, somehow removed, and you're just observing what's going on without being told what's going on...and you begin to think what an amazing human endeavor war is, and you begin to think about how that's where humanity really puts its efforts."  War is something which most of us continuously fool ourselves into thinking happens to someone else Over There.  Sacco forces us to confront the consequences of what happens when we send those "someones" to war.  He raises important questions in the course of just 24 beautifully-illustrated feet of this tapestry of combat and reminds us that on July 1, 1916, some of the British soldiers didn't even make it 24 feet beyond the lip of their trench as they tried to rush the German forces on the other side of "No Man's Land."  The Great War is a graphic novel in all senses of the word; but in its grisly depictions of torn-apart men flying up from the blast of an artillery shell, the book is a sad, honest account of the cost of combat.  We cannot look away.  We should not look away.